During the fall, with leaves changing color, the trip from the Yale campus to East Rock makes for a pleasant run or bicycle ride, with a bottle of water and a granola bar as the reward at the end. But even during the winter — with five inches of snow on the ground — there’s reason to venture into the East Rock neighborhood. Except this trek ends with a hot cup of coffee and an omelet stuffed to bursting with mushrooms, peppers and onions.
Virtually unknown amongst Yale undergrads, the restaurant known as The Pantry is a favorite to the many graduate students and faculty who live in the area. Located at the corner of State, Mechanic and East streets in East Rock (about a 20-minute walk from campus), the restaurant was founded in 1988 by brothers Art and Len Fritz, who still work behind the counter — Art as the host and Len as the chef.
The Pantry embodies all that a cafe should be. The seats are well worn from years of constant use, the coffee is always hot, and Art is constantly ready to meet the next hungry person who passes through the door with a smile and a friendly greeting. Art is always moving around the cozy space The Pantry occupies — and between taking orders and filling out checks, he never neglects to refill a cup of coffee, often before it is even necessary. There is no ostentatious product placement here: The fountain machine has a simple and unknown logo — “Foxon Park Beverages” — on its side. With no cash register, all the checks are written out by hand and computed on an adding machine.
The atmosphere is completed by the sounds of jazz music and sizzling from the kitchen in the background. Art is an avid jazz fan, and the walls of the restaurant are covered with posters of jazz festivals from various parts of the globe, all of which he attended. He explained that since Yale students come from many different places, the posters prove to be good conversation starters. He has made many acquaintances through discussions started by a poster from a customer’s home town.
Beyond their hometowns, Art said he knows “a million people” by what they eat, but not by their names.
“People who haven’t been here for years will come in and I’ll say, ‘Do you want the usual?’ And I know exactly what ‘the usual’ is,” Art said.
Over the years, the business has evolved along with the neighborhood in which it resides. At one time it served every meal of every day, but now its hours are limited to 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. The odd hours of operation are accounted for by The Pantry’s specialty: breakfast, available whenever the restaurant is open. In fact, The Pantry has won the New Haven Advocate’s award for best breakfast four years running.
Len uses only the freshest fruits and vegetables, and the portions are always generous. All the omelets are made with three eggs and are served with toast. A stack of three thick pancakes cover practically the same area as the plate they are served on. Pure maple syrup costs extra — along with an extensive menu of possible sides (including a single egg, homefries and other specialties) which cost a dollar or two more. The daily specials are listed on a chalkboard by the door — recent specials include smoked salmon eggs benedict, banana pancakes, and a spinach and feta omelet. Prices are extremely reasonable — coffee, an omelet and a plate of fruit added up to $10 — and provide more than enough sustenance for the walk back.
When asked what sets The Pantry apart from other breakfast cafes, Art explained he and his brother take time to cook food right, along with putting effort into their work and always being friendly. Bill, a frequent diner who did not offer his last name, said that no place compares to The Pantry in terms of food, service and overall experience and that is the reason why he has been coming back regularly for years.
Art is optimistic about the future for The Pantry.
“East Rock is getting better every year,” he said.
He attributed the steady improvement to the numerous bars and restaurants, the nascent night life and free parking. He readily admitted that not many undergraduates come to the restaurant frequently, but he was hesitant to pinpoint a central customer base.
“We get Divinity School students, SOM students, Music School students, history students, and also deans, professors and New Haven residents,” Art said. “It’s a good mix.”
So mix up your breakfast routine. Break out of the cereal rut. Open this Pantry’s doors.